Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Movie Review: Rampart

Rampart *** ½
Directed by: Oren Moverman.
Written by: James Ellroy and Oren Moverman.
Starring: Woody Harrelson (Dave Brown), Steve Buscemi (Bill Blago), Robin Wright (Linda Fentress), Sigourney Weaver (Joan Confrey), Ben Foster (General Terry), Anne Heche (Catherine), Ice Cube (Kyle Timkins), Brie Larson (Helen), Ned Beatty (Hartshorn), Cynthia Nixon (Barbara), Jon Foster(Michael Whittaker), Robert Wisdom (Captain), Stella Schnabel (Jane).

The Rampart scandal that rocks the LAPD in the late 1990s is too big for any one movie to handle. In all, 70 officers were implicated in crimes such as murder, assault, sexual assault, theft, drug dealing, and planting evidence, framing suspects, perjury and obstruction of justice. When the scandal came to light, it resulted in hundreds of over turned convictions. The full extent of the scandal will never be known, but it certainly was one of the widest reaching examples of police corruption in American history. Officers involved have even been linked to the shooting rapper Notorious B.I.G.

So, faced with such a huge, daunting scandal co-writer/director Oren Moverman (alongside writer James Ellroy, who has made a career out of LA set noirs) does a smart thing – and focuses on one man. This is Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), based in the Rampart division of the LAPD in 1999, and how through his own actions, he starts to slowly hang himself. From the first scene in the movie – where Brown goes on a rant about what being a LAPD officer really means and pretty much forcing a female rookie to coke down French fries she doesn’t want, it’s clear that Brown is at the very least a mean, cruel asshole. When he follows that up by brutally beating a man he gets into a car accident with, it’s clear he’s even worse than that. Of course, some enterprising citizen has a camera, and records Brown beating the suspect, which makes thing worse for the LAPD. The Rampart scandal is just starting to come out, and now, the LAPD has to deal with a rogue cop beating people in broad day light. But that is just the tip of the iceberg to Brown. He has been given the nickname “Date Rape” Dave because in 1987, he killed a man he says was a repeat date rapist, and the shooting has always been clouded by suspicion – that at the very least, Brown over reacted, and at most, it was nothing more but cold blooded murder.

Brown is not really liked by anyone. At work, he is now pretty much persona non grata – the chief (Steve Buscemi) wants him gone, but Brown says if they fire him, he won’t go quietly and they can’t afford another scandal. Internal Affairs (led by Sigourney Weaver) wants to get something on him, but he’s playing coy. The DA’s office is even keener to catch him, and doesn’t much care about how it looks, but so far Kyle Timkins (Ice Cube) can’t find anything on him. He is helped from on high by Hartshorn (Ned Beatty) a former cop, and a friend of Brown’s dead father, who has enough connections to pull some strings to save him. Even at home, Brown is not well liked. He first married one sister (Cynthia Nixon) then the other (Anne Heche) and fathered the daughters of both. Strangely, they all live in the same house and Brown will go to whatever woman will have him that day – although increasingly, neither wants him. He goes to the bar often, and picks up women who will have him (including Robin Wright), but she doesn’t much like him either. His oldest daughter Helen (Brie Larson) despises him, and it seems to be more than just regular teen angst. His younger daughter still loves him, but even he knows that probably won’t last. He knows he can only avoid being arrested or thrown off the force – either option about as appealing to him – for so long.

The main reason to see the movie is for Woody Harrelson’s brilliant performance as Brown. He doesn’t try to soften his edges at all, but he does make Brown into a three dimensional person, not just a monster, as he easily could have become. He is a man slowly drowning, who knows it, but cannot stop it. Sure, he puts on a brave face in public, but behind that false bravado is a man at the end of his rope, just looking for a way out. Harrelson commands the screen every second he’s on it – which is pretty much the entire movie. Harrelson makes the most of this juicy role.

 The writing is fine as well, and is perfectly suited for novelist James Ellroy, whose books usually document some sort of police corruption in LA (his most famous, and best novel, is LA Confidential). His style is spare, violent and cynical – and that describes the movie as well. Oren Moverman, who wrote and directed the wonderful The Messenger a few years back (for which Harrelson received a richly deserved Oscar nomination), has made another fine film.

Rampart suffers a little bit because none of the other characters as well written as Harrelson’s is. They remain firmly in the background, and for the most part, are cookie cutter roles. But Harrelson makes up for that. It is a brilliant performance – in a wonderful film.

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